Saturday, December 04, 2004

Richlands' field again to be wet

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To many Salem High School football fans, Dec.5, 1992 was the day the Spartans got hosed.

Richlands High athletic director Tom Rife says that's only halfway true.

On a muddy field in Richlands 12 years ago, Salem lost its Group AA Division 4 semifinal 17-7 to the Blue Tornadoes in a game that lives in Virginia High School League infamy.

After Richlands defeated Orange County to win the state title the following week, Salem protested the outcome of the semifinal loss. The Spartans accused then-Richlands coach Dennis Vaught of outfitting his team in illegal, 3/4 -inch cleats after obtaining a bill of sale from CMT Sporting Goods in Salem.

Vaught ultimately admitted using the extra-length cleats and was suspended from his head coaching job for a year by the Tazewell County School Board following a highly contentious meeting.

Richlands was put on probation by the VHSL for the 1993 season, but the Blue Tornadoes were allowed to keep their first and only state football title.

History repeats today. Salem visits Richlands for a 1:30 p.m. Division 4 semifinal rematch, the first meeting between the two teams since the 1992 game.

The controversy has been watered down. The field never was, Rife said.

"We wore the cleats, but we didn't water the field," Rife said.

Rife said Richlands' field will not be in great shape for today's game, but not for a lack of trying.

"The field is wet," he said. "We covered most of it Tuesday with a tarp when we had the forecast for rain. We took off the tarp and have been working on it almost nonstop. We don't want it to be wet. If anything, we want just the opposite. We're tired of this stuff."

Richlands is rolling out the red carpet for today's guests.

Rife said a sole Richlands fan is hosting a pregame tailgate party with free food available to anyone who stops by a tent set up behind one end zone.

Clearly, the town is ready to erase the bad aftertaste of '92.

"We just hate like the devil that this community took the rap," Rife said. "Folks in Southwest Virginia have a thing called coal mining, and it's something that binds you together.

"This community is reunited. There's no split. They're all with this team. Since this has come up again, the kids have had to get people to explain what happened to them. It's kind of like hearing an old story about an uncle or an aunt and going, 'Yeah, big deal.'"

Don't look for either of the chief principals from '92 to be on hand today. Former Salem coach Willis White insists he will not go to the game. Rife said Richlands personnel haven't seen Vaught in two years.

"Maybe we could get them to do the coin toss," Rife joked.

Twelve years ago, no one was laughing. Rife still rues the day.

"We kept the championship and we kept the trophy," Rife said. "But in the aftermath, there were no winners."

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